There he was, less than a month ago, browbeating Barack Obama and finally finding his fire. Then Election Day dawned, Ohio was declared, and Mitt Romney waved goodbye to his White House dreams with a shellshocked “Thanks, guys.” And that was that. No “You won’t have Romney to kick around anymore” tirade. No demands for a recount or talk of hanging chads. Sure, he tried to sling a little mud by claiming Obama had bought off Hispanics, but even GOPers called the comment “nuts.” No—by and large, Romney’s fade has been quick and quiet. His last tweet was on Nov. 10. He’s not making the talk-show rounds. Paparazzi are having trouble finding him—and when they do, he’s in the middle of the most yawnworthy of tasks (pumping gas, taking the clan to Disneyland). Clearly the man’s not planning a big comeback.
Some may call this smart. But compare Romney’s dissolve with the 2008 behavior of Sarah Palin, who wasn’t even the Republican nominee, though she might as well have been. At John McCain’s final rally, Palin arrived with her own big speech prepared—verifying, to McCain’s disgruntled aides at least, that the glossy Alaska governor had ambitions far beyond running-mate status. Sure enough, she soon churned out a memoir and landed a job with Fox News. Even if Palin never runs for president, she’s now an indelible part of the political landscape. So how is it that some losers go on to fame and fortune, while others vanish into obscurity?
Perhaps Palin can teach us some lessons about being a memorable loser. Let’s start with the fact that we never actually expected her to go gently into the good night. The “Thrilla From Wasilla” was larger than life—unapologetically, authentically. And Americans ate it up—even the haters. Palin understood that we would. She also knew to surround herself with symbols that conjured up her aura. Now when we talk of “hockey moms” and “pit bulls,” we think of Palin in her red suit and stilettos, tossing off folksy “you betchas!” and going straight for the liberal jugular.
It’s quite a coup to craft an image that can survive a crushing defeat. At the year’s other big competition, the London Olympics, a host of similarly unforgettable losers emerged. Ryan Lochte may have never bested Michael Phelps, but the moment he donned a blinged-out grill for the cameras, his celebrity status was cemented. Now we’ll get to watch him partying with Prince Harry in Vegas and “jeah”-ing his way through Fashion Week in perpetuity. Meanwhile, McKayla Maroney may have botched her vaults, but her disgusted expression became an instant Internet meme. Maroney is famous because she lost—and because she shared with us a moment of raw anger and anguish. We rewarded her for it by sympathizing with, and then idolizing, her. Even in loss, go big or go home.
Which brings us back to Romney. All along, with the brief exception of the first debate, the GOP candidate seemed to hesitate and waffle. He changed his positions so often, we had trouble knowing who the man was—even when he was right in front of us, there was a curious emptiness to his image. Now he’s gone, leaving behind the modest totems of hair pomade and the number 47. The national attention demands a bigger hero or villain. Good thing that 2016, and the prospect of a Christie-Hillary showdown, is just around the corner.